Remember white guilt?

Written February 2016

Last night I was lying in bed, thinking again about one of the frequent conversations that comes up at Consciousness Café and other race dialogues I’ve attended – “I’ve admitted my white privilege, now what?”

It’s a question that generally irritates the black participants who often reply: “That’s not my problem. You need to work out what to do.”

And it’s a tricky one for white participants because, quite obviously, when we face up to our white privilege, it makes us feel uncomfortable.

I mean, there you sit, in your decent house (even if it’s a small house in Westdene), with your decent car (even if it’s the smallest Kia), in your decent job (even if it’s a bottom-of-the-rung position where you earn R10,000 a month, holding your smart phone with a private security company on speed dial (even though you haven’t paid them for 5 months), and Medical Aid that gives you direct entrance to the MediClinic rather than a queue at Helen Jospeh, and well, you know that even though your life is kind of average, it’s still loads better off than the people who see squeezed into the MetroBus every day, and you feel uncomfortable, because well, you don’t really want to be without the house, the Kia, the medical aid, the smart phone, because these things are what make up your life – they are part of your culture, they kind of define who you are.

And so the question they are really asking is: what do you want me do with this my comfortable discomfort?

Last night I was lying in bed thinking about this, and I suddenly remembered a phrase that we use to talk about among ourselves before the black South African youth began to hold us to account with words like whiteness and privilege. Do you remember white guilt?

White guilt was that uncomfortable, embarrassed feeling, that you knew that your life was way, way, way better off than all these poor black people that the white government had oppressed, and so you, who felt ashamed of that, would hand out money to beggars and car guards, and maybe start a project somewhere, always with this sort of fake, resigned, uncomfortable smile on your face, and somewhere in your conscience you would tell yourself you were doing your bit, while the new government got on with dealing with the big job of building new schools, reforming education curricula, electrifying the rural areas.

But the other key truth about white guilt is that it was frowned upon.

“White guilt!” so-called friends would shout, raise an eyebrow, brand you, when you tried to do something, anything, that might improve the life of a fellow black citizen. White guilt became a kind of slur. Something not to act on. Something, in itself, to hide, to be ashamed of. The Rainbow Nation didn’t like white guilt because it was like a kind of underhanded admission that we were not all equal, while we were all pretending to be.

When I sent a first draft of Lost Where I Belong, my book where I travel alone through the old Transkei, on a journey to confront the fear, ignorance and prejudice in myself, the publishing house responded saying:

“There is nothing exceptional in this account which rehearses no more than conventional ‘liberal’ positions but set as it is as a counter-theme in the essay it raises some uncomfortable questions. For example is it, and the essay itself, anything more than a self-congratulatory and exculpatory gesture?”

I had to look up “exculpatory”. It turns out it means any evidence offered in a criminal trial that attempts to exonerate the defendant of guilt. I found it curious that an attempt to introspect, to question my place in this mess, was written off and denigrated as “white guilt”.

Socrates once wrote that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’. White guilt was the system’s way of gagging and silencing introspection.



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